Strategic Communication for Essential Schools: Advice from Christine Heenan

Educators have to wear many hats. Should they add that of communications professional to their collection – and if so, what are they best ways for them to spend their limited time, money, and other resources on creating the capacity for clear, effective communication in their schools?

Christine Heenan, a CES National board member, has been a communications consultant to education reform efforts from Seattle to Maine, as well as points in between. Her firm, Providence, Rhode Island-based Clarendon Group, has worked for CES National and several of its affiliate centers, the National Turning Points Network, author and educator Tony Wagner, the Great Maine Schools Project, the Maine Superintendents Association, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters, the Big Picture Company and the Met School.

Prior to founding Clarendon Group, Heenan was director of Community and Government Relations at Brown University, and served as a senior policy analyst on the White House Domestic Policy Council staff in the Clinton Administration. She is an adjunct assistant professor of public policy at Brown University, where she teaches about the role of communications in policymaking.

More about Clarendon Group and Heenan’s work is available at

What kinds of communications work has Clarendon Group done with the CES network to help schools and centers refine their message to influence policy?

We’ve been privileged to work with hundreds of schools in the CES network, primarily through our work with CES Centers in Maine and Ohio, but also through annual workshops at Fall Forum. We’ve tried to help schools identify their audiences, forge workable strategies for their school communities, and simplify their communications around reform, which can be heavy on jargon. For some schools, we’ve developed community engagement strategies. For others, we’ve helped them think through roll-out plans for new initiatives like creating freshmen teams. In Maine, we helped frame and launch a Gates-funded high school reform effort called the “Great Maine Schools Project.” For the Met and Big Picture Company, we’ve done everything from book parties to press releases to anniversary events.

What comes to mind when you think of effective communication in the world of K-12 public education?

Effective communication in K-12 public education follows the same guidelines as effective communication anywhere: be clear, accessible, compelling, and persuasive.. Whether the target audience is students, parents, community members, faculty, or a combination, the same strategies apply – know your audience, research formally and informally, and target your message accordingly. Unfortunately, I think, those with the cleanest, clearest message in K-12 have been for-profits like Edison Schools and Channel One. The KIPP organization (Knowledge Is Power Program) has managed media coverage extremely well.

What resources can Essential schools consult to build their capacity to develop and implement a communications strategy?

There are many good resources out there. The world of politics turns out good books on communications: George Lakoff has written Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives, an important book on the concept of framing. My old colleagues Paul Begala and James Carville wrote Buck Up, Suck Up…and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, a very readable and useful book. A more academic book is Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds, and in my course I use a book called Influence by Robert Caldini that really helps explain communication psychology. And of course there are great nuggets all over the web if you Google well.

How can a school find communication and public relations help and support in its community?

Use all the resources available – have high school students do a project in which they email parents about a levy vote for a proposed new school. Poll parents to see if there are PR and advertising professionals who would volunteer some of their time. Contact local firms and ask about their policy for doing pro bono projects. Communications professionals are like most people – they like to talk about their work and they care about kids.

Any thoughts on how schools can – or should – teach their students, staff, and family communities how to spread specific messages about school mission and goals?

Involve everyone. Make sure parents, students, and staff understand the importance of effective communication, through example as well as through coaching. Make sure everyone knows what specific messages, missions, and goals are. Use school branding opportunities like t-shirts, signage, and newsletters to reinforce efforts.

Any specific tips for building relationship with local media?

Try hard to understand their environment. They work within increasing pressures to boost bottom line, and there are fewer “content specialists” on most papers’ reporting staff – the reporter covering your school board meeting may have been writing about the local river clean up effort the day before. Don’t assume they understand what you’re trying to do – walk them through it on background. Reporters have less time to pursue stories and are under pressure to generate stories that will get people talking, so learn how to package stories that meet those needs but serve your message too. Create camera-friendly backdrops to events you want them to attend. Give them something different. Also be respectful of deadlines. That’s important.